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ABDUH, MUHAMMAD (1849-1905), Egyptian scholar and reformer regarded as the architect of Islamic modernism. The birth year of Muhammad `Abduh coincided with the death of Muhammad `All, the Albanian adventurer and creator of modern Egypt. `All’s regime, in political terms, generated the issues of modern change associated in intellectual terms with `Abduh’s pioneer leadership as a journalist, theologian, jurist andin the last six years of his life-grand mufti ofEgypt.

The initial factors in his career were his traditional studies at al-Azhar University and an early commitment to Sufism with the Shadhili order of mystical discipline and the practice of dhikr and ta’widh. His university studies ensured not only his grounding in the skills of an `alim but also his awareness of the inhibitions of taglid (adherence to tradition), against which his reforming energies were later directed. Although he intellectually renounced his Sufi background, it continued to impart a quality of piety to his academic concerns for liberation from the harmful effects of taqlid.

The crucial influence in his development was the impact of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), a strenuous advocate of a unitary Islam who emphasized the concept of ummah (community) against the regionalism that in the next century was to break up allegiance to the Ottoman empireinto nationalism and the nation-state. PanIslam was al-Afghani’s response to British rule in Egypt and to European domination in general. `Abduh was drawn into the cause and became editor of the journal Al-`urwah al-wuthqa (Firm Handhold), which took its title from a Qur’anic phrase (surahs 2.256 and 31.22); despite the brevity of its publication in the i880s, the journal kindled the enthusiasm of a generation of writers, including Rashid Ridd, ultimately `Abduh’s biographer and his chief literary legatee.

`Abduh was exiled from Egypt between 1882 and 1888, when he made wide contact with kindred minds in Syria and North Africa, with a short sojourn also in France. After his return to Cairo, his thoughts and efforts were drawn increasingly toward education and a renewal of Islamic theology. Given the ambiguities implicit in Arab Ottomanism and the actualities of British power inEgypt, he sensed that political activism had to be accompanied, if not overtaken, by the invigoration of the Muslim mind. Western influences had taken hold ever since Napoleon’s intrusion into the Arab East, but largely in practical forms-arms, trade, travel, and finance. A response to modernity had to be made in the way Islam perceived itself. `Abduh’s training in the familiar scholastic patterns of tafsir (Qur’Anic exegesis or commentary) and fiqh (jurisprudence) had made him aware of the impediment to critical self-awareness in those habits and attitudes. The zest he had acquired from al-Afghani he now harnessed to intellectual ends. The attitude and training of the `ulama’, as he saw them, had entrenched them in the citation of authority, the appeal to sacrosanct exegesis, and a supine satisfaction with static norms. This taqlid, or “hideboundness” (to adopt a harsh translation), had its origins in the bases of Islam’s concept of wahy (“revelation”) in the Qur’an and in the assumptions of isnad (“reliance”) on which its handling of tradition had long relied. Once an instinct of loyalty to the past and as such characteristic of Muslim scholarship, taqlid had come to sap the genuine articulation of Islam’s meaning and quality.

To achieve emancipation from the mentality of taqlid and yet retain Islamic authenticity was therefore a formidable task. `Abduh shouldered it with admirable tenacity, patience, and resilience, corroborating his scholarly credentials by earning increasing personal stature, despite the toll on his health and resources caused by pressure from reactionary forces. The idea that the shari’ah could be subject to wise discretion and that even theology could be flexible within limits served to enliven theological education, to increase student initiative, and to give scope to existing ideas of istihsan and istislah, (considerations of equity through appeal to wellbeing and good sense).

The main ground of `Abduh’s “liberal-loyal” equation was the conviction that revelation and reason, each rightly perceived, were inherently harmonious. Was not reason one with that fitrah (creation) by which, the Qur’an affirms (30.30), God had made human nature fit religion, the two being combined in the very word Islam? In Risalat al-tawhid (The Theology of Unity), his most popular work, he expounded his conviction that “every sound speculation led to a belief in God as He is described in the Qur’an” (p. Io). `Abduh held that the premise on which this belief rested was such as to make proof unnecessary: despite the word “described,” the being of God was incomprehensible. There were things about which it was not permissible to inquire, where curiosity could lead only to “confusion of belief.” Nevertheless, what was given in revelation should be rationally possessed-a task incumbent on every generation. There was no need to raise questions of theodicy, but sound exegesis should avoid crudely reading into the Qur’an anticipations of new discoveries and inventions. The purpose of revelation was essentially religious; what reason as science could achieve on its own, God had left it to do, and faith must respect its methods. `Abduh sustained the traditional case for the `ijaz (matchlessness) of the Qur’an as conclusive evidence of its divine origin. He identified as a form of shirk (“associationalism,” or more broadly “not letting God be God”) any reluctance to apply rationality to issues of society or to refuse its scientific fruits. Such reluctance would be a disavowal of divine creation.Shari`ah law was to be interpreted by the same principle of divinely created status and human custody in harmony.

At the time of his death `Abduh was in his middle fifties. The bitter opposition he suffered from both academic and legal foes was proof of the measure of his influence and the range of his vision for a renewed Islam. His ideas found some continuing expression through the pages of the influential journal Al-manar (Lighthouse), but his disciples lacked his stature, and there is evidence of an adverse reaction to his legacy soon after his demise. At longer range, however, he came to epitomize an incipient modernism, opening up a fresh viewpoint yet leaving many issues unresolved.


`Abduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg.London, 1966. Translation of Risalat al-tawhid.

Adams, Charles C. Islam and Modernism inEgypt.London, 1933. Pioneering study focusing on `Abduh.

Amin, `Uthman. Muhammad `Abduh. Translated by Charles Wendell.Washington,D.C., 1953.

Cragg, Kenneth. Counsels in Contemporary Islam.Edinburgh, 1965. Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939.London, 1962.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity.Chicago, 1982.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/abduh-muhammad/

  • writerPosted On: October 5, 2012
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